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7 Nov 2006 : Column 246WH—continued

1.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing the debate and I commend him for the diligence that he has shown in getting to grips with what is a quite complex and technical issue. I am grateful to him for accepting the importance of our BSE controls, which I shall come to in a moment. On a personal level, I sympathise strongly with him and his constituents: Harriet is obviously a much loved pet. However, as he himself recognised, it is very important, not only for public health but for our beef industry, that our BSE controls are followed rigorously.

You will recall, Mr. Martlew, that variant CJD is a terrible disease that has already cost the lives of more than 150 people in this country. That is why we have stringent BSE controls and why they must be enforced. The economic effects of BSE were also devastating for our livestock industry, for the beef industry in particular and for the taxpayer. In 1995, we exported £500 million-worth of beef. Until the present Government succeeded in persuading the EU to lift the export ban in May this year, the British beef industry had suffered 10 years of lost exports. Lifting the export ban has been a slow, painstaking process and has been achieved by demonstrating to the European Commission, to other EU member states and to our own independent Food Standards Agency that our BSE controls are effective and are being applied rigorously.

Of course, the economic effects have not been confined to exports. Until last November, we had an over-30-months rule, which kept older cattle out of the food chain. As a result, the Government had to establish in 1996 an over-30-months slaughter scheme to dispose of the many thousands of cattle that could not enter the food chain. Under that scheme, more than 8 million cattle were incinerated at a cost to the taxpayer of £3.9 billion.

Once again, it was the strict application of our BSE controls that enabled us to replace the over-30-months rule with a robust system of BSE testing for cattle born after July 1996. Instead of an expensive OTM scheme, we now have a much cheaper and more limited cohort cull and the older cattle disposal scheme, under which cattle born before August 1996 are destroyed. That is better for farmers and for the taxpayer.

Hon. Members should not have any doubt that cohort cattle are at higher risk of developing BSE. We are not just blindly following rules that make no sense. Cohort cattle are those that might have consumed the same feed as a BSE case during the first year of their lives, and feed contaminated with the BSE agent is the most important source of BSE infection for cattle. Experts believe that the majority of BSE cases were infected during the first year of their lives.

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BSE was confirmed in six cohort animals culled last year. That is a confirmation rate of 0.2 per cent. In comparison, the confirmation rate in 2005 for normal healthy cattle born after July 1996 was only 0.0007 per cent. That is why EU legislation requires all member states to kill cohorts as soon as possible.

We began the cohort cull in March 2005 in preparation for the replacement of the over-30-months rule. By carrying out the cull, we removed from the national herd all those cattle known to be at a higher risk of being infected with BSE. That is important. Consumer representatives in this country and on the continent have made it clear to us that they do not want there to be any chance of those cattle entering the food chain. To date, we have culled more than 3,500 cohort cattle, some of which have been pets.

Other than for animals kept for the purposes of bona fide research projects on approved premises, there are only two exceptions to the legal requirement to cull cohort cattle. Those are if the animal is a breeding bull at an artificial insemination centre or if there is evidence that the animal did not consume the same feed as the BSE case. Harriet is manifestly not a bull, and in the past her owner has agreed that she shared feed with the BSE case with which she is linked. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean said, the owner has subsequently submitted further information that, it is claimed, shows that the animal did not in fact share the same feed as the BSE case. I will of course examine that evidence in detail before any final decision is reached.

Let me deal with a couple of the other arguments that the hon. Gentleman and campaigners involved in this case have suggested as reasons why Harriet should not be culled. We are told that she is a pet and therefore the legislation does not apply to her. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no exemption for pet cattle under the law.

Mr. Harper: May I pick the Minister up on that point? It seems to me that the European regulations do not apply to animals not intended for the food chain. Just so that we are clear, can the Minister confirm whether that is the case, or whether the regulations as implemented in the UK by the Government were widened to apply to all animals? The reason why I focus on the EU point is that it is the concern about the reaction of our partners that is so worrying.

Mr. Bradshaw: There is no exemption under EU law or domestic law for live cattle, whether or not they are considered to be pets. In fact, the German Government have recently been taken to task for their lax implementation of the cohort rule. We would face exactly the same infraction proceedings were we to follow the position suggested by the hon. Gentleman, although of course it is always open to legal representatives of the family in question to challenge any final decision if they think that we are interpreting provisions more strictly than other EU countries, or if they think that we have got it wrong. That course is always open to anyone who disagrees with something that the Government are doing.

It has also been claimed that Harriet is too old to develop BSE. Again, that is not true. The mean incubation period for BSE in cattle is about five years, but the range is very wide. The oldest reported BSE
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case in Britain was 22 years of age; the youngest was 20 months. We are told, and the hon. Gentleman has reminded us today, that Harriet cannot enter the food chain because she is padlocked in a field and her passport has been seized. Those measures offer reassurance, although, given the albeit unlikely possibility of cattle rustling, there can be no 100 per cent. guarantee. There remains a legal obligation to cull the animal because she is directly linked to a confirmed BSE case and may have been exposed to the same contaminated feed.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the prospect of a new live test for BSE. We have consulted experts at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, who have advised that that test is neither available nor approved yet and it may be some time until it is. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the guarantee that he seeks that we should simply wait for the possibility of such a live test and not implement the law in the meantime.

Mr. Harper: On that point, my office spoke to the company in San Jose, California, yesterday, to check the timetable. The company said that in the next few months, probably by the end of this year, it would be ready to apply to the EU for testing. Therefore, the timetable is perhaps more secure than a long one would be. Perhaps the Minister’s officials could research that point, and check whether a short delay is involved, or something more considerable.

Mr. Bradshaw: I should be very surprised if the company were not as keen as most companies are to get its tests validated as soon as possible. It is in its interest to do that, but that does not necessarily mean that it will happen. I think that I am right in saying that, if the test is validated, that will be the first available live BSE test. There has not been one until now, and it is not a matter that is always straightforward. We shall of course keep the matter under review, but if the hon. Gentleman looks into the issue, he will, I think, find that several stages would remain to be undergone before a live BSE test was accepted. It would have to be accepted as a validated test EU-wide before we could use it as an alternative to our current BSE controls.

For the moment, the EU TSE regulation requires the culling of cohorts as soon as possible. We have a legal obligation. Our BSE controls will be subject to yet another EU veterinary inspection shortly, and any shortcomings that are found could undermine confidence in our beef exports. It has taken a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get on top of the scourge of BSE. We are finally winning that battle. Our domestic over-30- months rule was replaced with a robust testing system in November last year, since when more than 330,000 cattle that would have been incinerated have instead been sold for human consumption. Since the export ban was lifted in May, beef exports have been steadily building, and they are currently running at 1,000 tonnes a week, valued at about £1.5 million. The beef price has risen by about 20 per cent. in just 12 months. Those significant achievements have benefited beef farmers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and elsewhere, and we have achieved them through sound science, proper risk assessment and rigorously enforced BSE controls. All that could be put
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at risk if our domestic or EU food safety authorities believed that we were acting illegally on BSE.

I shall look again at the correspondence that, Harriet’s owner suggests, shows she did not share the same feed as a BSE case. However, if, when the Government reach a firm and final decision, the Price family disagree, they can, as I have said, challenge it in the courts. However, I hope that both they and the hon. Gentleman will recognise that any Government’s priority must be to protect public health and to promote confidence in our beef industry.

Mr. Harper: Before the Minister sits down, he has clearly set out the issues affecting the beef industry, but it is still not clear to me, and it would be helpful if he could explain, what risk there is to public health from allowing Harriet to live, given the family’s assurances, and the fact that the passport is under the control of the Department.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am not a veterinary expert or scientist. I am simply spelling out to the hon. Gentleman the BSE rules and regulations, which are extremely important for the protection of public health, for the prevention of unnecessary deaths of human beings, and crucially—the hon. Gentleman needs to be clear about this with the beef industry in his constituency—for consumer confidence at home and abroad in our beef industry.

1.23 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Dartford River Crossing

1.30 pm

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): It gives me great pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Mr. Martlew.

According to Kent county council, the A282 Dartford crossing approach road is the busiest stretch of road in the county, with approximately 150,000 vehicles using the route each day. Unsurprisingly, the route has a pollution record that is also unmatched by other roads in the county. Both nitrogen dioxide and PM10—a category of particulate matter—emissions in the area have been found to be far in excess of the statutory standard emissions objective, and as a result an air quality management area for the A282 corridor was declared by Dartford district council in 2001. Each year, I receive dozens of letters from residents who live next to the A282, complaining about the growing level of pollution and noise from traffic on the road.

Moreover, each year traffic levels on the A282 increase by around 3,000 vehicles a day, many of which are HGVs travelling from well outside north Kent. Indeed the Department for Transport’s figures show that nearly two thirds, or 61 per cent., of vehicles that use the crossing are making journeys of more than 100 km, which emphasises the non-local nature of most of the traffic on the crossing. Despite the high level of congestion and pollution caused by traffic using the crossing, Dartford receives virtually no compensation out of the income from the toll scheme. The tolls generate about £65 million a year, of which £15 million is spent on maintenance costs, leaving a net income of £50 million. Of that £50 million, only £1 million is set aside as credit approvals—not grants, I emphasise—for Kent county council. The rest of the money is spent on transport projects in other parts of the country. I need hardly say how much anger and irritation that causes in my constituency.

Dartford residents find it galling in the extreme that Kent gets nothing from the tolls, other than £1 million in supported borrowing, and that the income is spent instead on transport projects in other parts of the country that will benefit people who may never even have heard of Dartford. They also believe that it is totally unfair that they, unlike anyone else in the country, have to pay to use a section of the local trunk road network. Residents in Manchester are not expected to pay to use sections of the M60, residents in Newcastle are not asked to pay to travel on the A1(M), and the Rotherhithe and Blackwall tunnels, not to mention the Woolwich ferry, are free. Why then should residents in Dartford have to pay to use the M25 to cross the Thames to get to Thurrock? It is not surprising, therefore, that in a recent survey that I carried out in Dartford, nearly half of the respondents called for the total abolition of the tolls, and another third demanded a 100 per cent. discount for local residents.

To add insult to injury, the Department for Transport now proposes to increase the toll charges at the crossing without increasing the pot of money available to Kent. The way in which those proposed changes were announced, was inept; indeed, it bordered on the amateurish. The Department failed to
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consult or even inform local members or the relevant local authorities of the proposals before it made the announcement. That demonstrates either a total disregard for the interests of the communities concerned, or, at best, gross incompetence within the Department. Lessons must be learned within the Department, and they must be learned fast.

For me, the most disappointing aspect of all this is that the Dartford river crossing toll scheme is being dealt with by the Department in an entirely different way to every other comparable road charging scheme in the country. The scheme is one of only three road user charging schemes in the country that were introduced using powers in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Transport Act 2000. The intention behind the Acts is to use road charges to help to tackle congestion and to earmark the revenue that is generated for use on local transport projects. The London congestion charging scheme and the Durham congestion charging scheme—the country’s only other congestion charging scheme—operate in precisely that fashion. The GLA Act requires that the net revenues of the London scheme must be invested in transport projects in London, and the proceeds of the Durham scheme help to pay for running a shuttle bus system to link the city’s historic attractions with local car parks, bus routes and the main train station.

Another major difference between the Dartford scheme and the London and Durham schemes is that residents in London and Durham, unlike those in Dartford, were able to have a say as to whether they wanted the schemes in the first place. In London, Ken Livingstone included proposals for a scheme to reduce congestion in his 2000 election manifesto. After he was elected, he spent 20 months consulting on and amending the details of the scheme before finally announcing, in February 2002, his decision that it should go ahead. The decision to introduce a congestion charge in Durham city centre in 2002 was taken by Durham county council after a public consultation exercise the year before had resulted in a positive response from local residents. In Dartford, on the other hand, the Highways Agency carried out a public consultation in 2001, on the proposal to introduce a charging scheme at the Dartford crossing under the Transport Act 2000. However, the consultees were asked only to consider how revenue from the tolls should be spent, rather than to comment on whether the toll scheme should continue.

In the forthcoming consultation on the proposed changes to the scheme, local residents will once again be denied the opportunity to choose whether to keep the tolls. As a result, Dartford residents understandably feel that they are being discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens. At a time when the Department seeks to build a consensus in favour of rolling out road charging across the whole of the country, it makes absolutely no sense to treat people in that way. The way in which the Dartford toll scheme has been managed is giving my constituents, and, I am sure, observers from far wider afield, the impression that the Department sees road charging simply as another means of raising revenue from the taxpayer, rather than a progressive measure to encourage people and businesses to use more sustainable means of transport and thus improve our environment.

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My constituency office and local papers such as the Dartford Messenger, which is leading a campaign against the proposed 50p charge hike, have been inundated in the past two weeks with messages from angry residents complaining about the Department’s proposals. It is not too late for the Department to think again. I have made it clear to my constituents that I am not prepared to support the proposed increase, or any toll charge at all for Dartford residents, until I receive guarantees that the bulk of the revenue from the tolls—I think it should be at least 75 per cent.—will be spent on local transport projects in north Kent and south Essex. I also want the Department either to scrap the charge completely for local residents or give them a significant discount.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important issue before the House. It is right that he does so. I thank him also for supporting, albeit tangentially by amendment, my early-day motion on the Dartford crossing increase. If more money is to be raised from our roads, would not it be better to charge European lorries for entering the country instead of further burdening the people of south Essex and north Kent with the Dartford crossing toll? To my mind, the situation is downright dishonest and a betrayal of the people, because the legislation said that the tolls would end when the project was paid for—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Is this an intervention?

Bob Spink: Yes. I have finished, Mr. Martlew.

Dr. Stoate: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know that he feels strongly about this issue, as he has raised it with me several times. I am sure that his constituents will be pleased that he is making his views known today.

Given that the Department’s data suggest that only 3 per cent. of trips over the crossing are local in nature, scrapping or reducing the charge for local residents would be a small change, but would make a significant difference to people’s perception of the scheme. There is, after all, a pressing need for additional investment in Dartford’s transport infrastructure. Progress on some of Dartford’s major redevelopment projects is being held up by concerns about the capacity of Dartford’s local and trunk road network. Eastern quarry is a prime example of that. Similarly, the decision to make Abbey Wood the terminus for the Crossrail network, rather than Ebbsfleet, will restrict some of Kent Thameside’s development potential. A host of transport projects identified in the Swanscombe and Greenhithe master plan that are designed to help to integrate villages into the new developments in Kent Thameside also await funding.

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